Foxglove is an easy and wonderful plant for the perennial shade garden.
The name foxglove is a slurring of the name “folks glove” which comes from the individual flowers of this plant resembling the fingers of a glove and worn by small “folks” or fairies. It has nothing to do with foxes.
The scientific name “Digitalis” comes from the Latin word digitus, a “finger”.
Potent heart drug
Note that this plant is the source of the potent heart drug “Digitalis” and is considered poisonous.
The seeds and leaves are the active toxin and should not be eaten, (they are both bitter) but touching the leaves is fine.
Foxglove, a biennial, is an early summer bloomer, reaching two to three feet in height (taller in well fertilized gardens) and lives quite comfortably in the shade. It will also live in the sunny garden if kept decently watered but it prefers the semi-shade to full shade. The colours range from yellows, browns to pinks and multi-hues.
Plant 18 inches apart.
The secret to success is to add organic matter in large quantities, it thrives in soils that are high in organic matter (compost, old leaves etc).
It is easily propagated by seed. Once established in the garden, it will happily self-sow for years.
As a biennial, it grows leaves in its first year and flowers the second. Then it dies. Luckily it produces truly prodigious amounts of seed so you’ll never be lacking for them.
Foxglove seeds are easy to start and you can find multiple kinds here
To obtain plants, you can either visit a nursery or scatter seeds where you want them to grow. (do not cover the seeds) Do this in the early spring and you’ll see new growth by mid-summer for flowering plants the following year.
Potential Problem With First Year Plants
I’ve heard many gardeners complain that their first plantings purchased as one-year old plants from nurseries would not overwinter.
This seems to be the case, particularly when the garden is well-fertilized. The plants go into the fall lush and green and die because they are too lush and green.
Abuse them a bit and they’ll do fine – don’t water or feed after July. Or, start your own from seed.
Only deadhead if you don’t want new flowers. This is a biennial – growing one year and flowering/dying the second. If you deadhead the flowers, you’ll prevent seed from forming and your plants will disappear.
To obtain the colour of your choice, only let the flowers that you like set seed. Deadhead all others before they set seed. In this way, only the blossom colors you like will be setting seed and in a few generations, you’ll have the color you want. You can increase the numbers of pink flowering plants quite dramatically this way.
Best garden varieties
- Digitalis grandiflora is a true perennial and not biennial. It will repeat blossom in the fall if you deadhead it as soon as the first blooms start to fade. It is long lived and grows as well as any of the foxgloves in the full sun.
- Digitalis x mertonensis (Strawberry Foxglove) is my favourite foxglove and is the one I would select for pink blooms.
- Digitalis purpurea is the common foxglove and it does best where the soils are uniformly moist. The fancier varieties will revert back to the species in a few years as they die off and the species takes over (it is more vigorous).
To maintain the color you prefer, do deadhead off those blossoms that are drab and do not let them set seed.